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Texas School to Watch: Diversity and Culture of Achievement Form a Strong Foundation for Scott Johnson Middle School

Shane Mauldin|
Monday, February 15, 2016
(l-r) Scott Johnson Middle School students Rileigh Smith, Mary Wright, Yaa-Yaa Pajibo and Joju Olojede

(l-r) Scott Johnson Middle School students Rileigh Smith, Mary Wright, Yaa-Yaa Pajibo and Joju Olojede

McKinney, Texas – Keep your eye on Scott Johnson Middle School. For the third time in a little less than five years, they’ve earned major recognition for their efforts to help all students achieve.

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform and the Texas Middle School Association (TMSA) announced Friday, Feb. 12 that SJMS is one of only seven Texas middle schools to be named a Texas School to Watch for 2015–2016. They join Cockrill Middle School, who was chosen last year, among the ranks of an exceptional group of schools who serve as a model for others.

They’ve earned it by simply highlighting what they do on a daily basis.

Joju Olojede, Mary Wright, Rileigh Smith and Yaa-Yaa Pajibo are seated in a semi-circle of desks at SJMS to talk about their school. Principal Mitch Curry sits with them, and it only takes a few minutes of conversation to discover that this group—made up of three 8th graders and one 7th grader (Rileigh)—have their eyes focused on the right things and that they exemplify the ethos of SJMS.

Each of these girls is deeply involved in the school’s AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program. Their days are immersed in academics and a host of other worthwhile endeavors: National Junior Honor Society, band, orchestra, athletics, theatre, volleyball, choir…and on and on. Along the way, they’re learning the valuable skill of managing and prioritizing a hundred things at once.

Though still in middle school, college is already on their radar, and they talk enthusiastically about NYU, Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Texas A&M. They dream of medical school and journalism and teaching and veterinary medicine, and as we talk, there’s no reason to think that any of them couldn’t land at their chosen destination.

All of this involvement and focus and planning is due—at least in part—to a campus that is doing a lot of things the right way, encouraging and creating opportunities for a widely diverse student body to discover success across the board.

This is not a new thing at Scott Johnson; as a result of the school’s ongoing efforts, the campus has earned more than one high-profile recognition over the last few years. In 2012, they were named a Met-Life Foundation/NASSP Breakthrough School, and then in 2013, they became an AVID Demonstration School.

Now, the Schools to Watch program, launched in 1999 by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, has chosen SJMS as a 2016 School to Watch, making them one of only seven middle schools in Texas selected this year.

In March, SJMS will be honored at the Texas Middle School Association/Texas Schools to Watch Annual Conference, and in June, they’ll be recognized at the annual National Schools to Watch Conference in Washington, D.C.

When other campuses want to expand their efforts to reach all students, many of them will look to SJMS as a model.

In 2011, Texas became the 16th state to partner with the Schools to Watch program. Broadly speaking, Schools to Watch looks for campuses that challenge all students toward academic excellence and that are also developmentally responsive and socially equitable.

Schools apply for consideration, and a team of evaluators visits campuses to observe classrooms and interview administrators, teachers, students and parents. They look at achievement data, suspension rates, quality of lessons and student work. Schools that meet the criteria are recognized for a three-year period and are reevaluated at the end of that time frame.

“Scott Morgan Johnson Middle School is indeed a School to Watch,” says Dr. Gail Hartin, clinical professor & director for the Master of Education Accelerated School Leadership program at SMU.

“The sense of community and caring is evident from the moment a visitor walks in the door,” she says. “There is an intentional and collaborative focus on meeting the needs of every child. Every instructional and operational decision is made with students’ success and well-being in mind. Parents and community members are actively involved in supporting the professional staff and the students.”

When Hartin and her four fellow evaluators from the Schools to Watch program arrived to tour SJMS a few weeks ago Joju, Mary, Rileigh and Yaa-Yaa were happy to serve as ambassadors for their school.

“To me it’s an honor,” says Mary. “We’re being taught by some of the best teachers and with some of the smartest students, and we’re around kids who are getting ready for college. [These students] are not just here because they have to be. They’re here because they want to be one of the best.”

“With the evaluators,” Rileigh adds, “we tried to point out different things that students do at SJMS, and we kept pointing out AVID. But, we also talked about academics, our A/B Honor Roll and things like that.”

“It’s about what our school does on a daily basis,” says Mary.

“There are a lot of ways that we reach students,” interjects Curry, “but, one of the things that the evaluators really liked was that it’s not just an AVID system. It’s a school-wide system.”

Curry begins to enumerate one positive approach after another. He discusses target classes in math and English that help new students catch up academically when they move in during the year. College banners loom overhead in the main corridors, and a peek inside any classroom reveals the trappings of that teacher’s college alma mater.

“They were really impressed with our music programs and our mentoring program through the district’s Partners in Education office,” he says. “We do PBIS, which is behavior support, so we give Tiger bracelets, and we do Tiger tickets if you’re caught doing something positive. We do drawings. It’s just about catching people doing good things.”

Pre-AP classes impressed the evaluators in the way they represent the school’s diversity.

“We make sure that everybody gets an opportunity,” Curry says. “We were one of the first schools to abandon the contract. There used to be a [Pre-AP] contract that was pretty restrictive, and it kept some kids from being in there making B’s. So, we make a gigantic push to make sure everybody has an opportunity. If you want to be in an AP class, and you want to work hard, then go for it.”

The students have come to see the school’s diversity as a strength, and they’ve gleaned valuable lessons from it.

“Since there are so many different types of people here, you can’t really make assumptions,” says Yaa-Yaa. “You can really only base [your opinion] on their personality. [Our school’s diversity] has let me see people in different ways. It has also taught me not to make assumptions based on what a person looks like and that I should get to know them.”

“I think with us being as diverse as we are,” adds Mary, “you can break through what people think you are. You can show them you are smarter, that you’re more than what they think you are and that you are capable of doing something better.”

When the kids begin to take on that mentality, a new common denominator begins to emerge.

“Over the years, I started to surround myself with people who make good grades,” says Joju. “And, people who are a positive influence. I’m starting to understand that I should surround myself with people who want to go to college and make good choices and really push myself forward.”

Rileigh’s experience has been much the same. “I found myself hanging out with people that really care about what they do with their life, and they really care about what they’re going to do and what their future is going to be like,” she says.

“They don’t just live for the moment. I don’t want to be around someone who’s going to say,
‘Forget school. Whatever.’ I want to be around someone who’s going to to encourage me to keep going and push forward.”

“Pushing forward” is a common theme around Scott Johnson Middle School. And, a campus full of kids with that mindset is definitely worth watching.

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